Teacher Journal: Seth
Seth (from Lincolnville, Maine - USA)
Taught in Rayong, Thailand
Everything is going pretty well. I just finished the first week of teaching - it's pretty exciting and everyone treats me like a rock star! I'm in the office of my factory (teaching employer) now, chatting with the secretaries, and going to Bangkok tonight for a night on the town.
A funny little proviso in Thailand's immigration policy is that no foreigner is allowed to change his visa status from within the country; instead he has to travel to a thai embassy in a neighboring nation and get his passport processed there. When I discovered this strange obstacle, I thought, "What a good excuse to do some sightseeing."
I decided I'd take an overnight bus bound for Nong Khai, in the far reaches of northeastern Thailand, and then cross over into Laos on a Thursday morning, get my passport back on Friday and be free for the weekend. Instead, this "quick" trip involved fourteen bumpy hours in a cramped Thai-sized bus seat, with six to eight hours between bathroom breaks, and the driver choosing two in the morning as the perfect time to turn on the radio. Full blast! I couldn't really complain, though - the many passengers we picked up along the way were relegated to sitting in the aisles (seats were reserved for those going the farthest, and my odyssey took the cake). I was amazed by the nonchalance with which the aisle-squatters accepted their fate, and the generally happy mood that accompanied their otherwise hellish ride. At one point along the way, a governmental inspector climbed aboard to check on the capacity of this very crowded bus. Just prior, the bus driver had made three unfortunate souls hide in the luggage compartment! (They were let out a few kilometers down the road). When we finally got into Nong Khai around 6:30 or so the next morning, I extracted myself from the bus and stretched for awhile, then tried to figure out where I was and how to get to Laos.
With a cup of coffee to bolster my addled nerves, I hailed a tuk-tuk (a small motorcycle-driven carriage similar to a rickshaw) and set off across the border. I filled out forms and watched my passport get filled up with stamps, and then found my way to the Thai embassy, priding myself for being so efficient as to get my business taken care of before breakfast. My pride lasted right up until I got to the embassy doors, to find that is was closed in observance of a Thai holiday, and no business could be conducted until the next day. This meant, of course, that I would have to spend the weekend in Laos waiting for my passport to be processed. I jumped into another tuk-tuk, found a guesthouse, and had a decent breakfast. As happens often in Southeast Asia, I found myself in a conversation with some fellow travelers, a group of German interns from Daimler Chrysler in Bangkok, who were in Laos to celebrate the very holiday that had ruined my plans. A glance at their Lonely Planet guidebook revealed that everything outside the capital of Laos was very, very far away - apparently I was stuck in town for the next four days. With that news, I went to bed, firmly intending to sleep away the majority of the day, and most likely the rest of my stay in Laos.
Later, after a very nice supper watching a red sun set into the Mekong river, I wandered back toward my guesthouse, fearing that four days here were going to be very slow indeed. Then I came across a building far larger than anything else I had seen so far that day, ornately decorated in ivory and gold filigree proclaiming this was the Laos National Culture Hall.
Seeing a group of schoolchildren walking inside, I decided that it had to be a museum of some sort. So, with absolutely nothing else to do, I headed inside, intending to get a quick fill of Laotian history and culture before going to bed. To my surprise, I was handed a musical program, then followed an increasingly well-dressed crowd into a vast auditorium. There, I discovered to my amazement that the French Society in Vietiane had arranged for the award-winning Renoir Quartet to come over from Paris and play a selection of Mozart and Schumann. I noticed the tuxedos and evening gowns up front, and quickly found a seat in the back. Three violinists and a cellist stepped out to brisk applause, and immediately dove into the music. It was truly lovely, hauntingly beautiful at times and gently soothing at others; my reflections on my trip to this point made the evening all the more pleasantly surreal. Indeed, Laos might have more to offer than I had assumed.
The next morning, I made it to the Thai embassy a good hour before it was due to open, only to find a lengthy line already formed. After waiting for and making (very) small talk with Laotians waiting for tourist visas, I passed in my forms, paid my fee and was unceremoniously told to come back on Monday to collect my visa. Two additional days to burn, with little prospect of finding any French Society goings-on.
After another walking tour of the local restaurants, I found a small travel agency, offering, "adventure and eco-travelóday trips available". Ten minutes and twenty-nine dollars later, I was booked for a full day whitewater kayaking trip for the following day, but still no idea of what to do that night. I wandered back to the Lao National Culture Hall, this time to find lots of people dressed in military uniforms. "What the hell," I thought, and walked in, not really looking around until I was safely in my seat in the back of the theater. I found myself at a gathering of the Lao Army and their families. Curtains opened, and a band appeared in the corner of the stage. The show included traditional singing and dancing, a short play, a large-scale musical tribute to the army, and even a magic show. In all, a pretty decent way to occupy a few hours before bed, and a very healthy dose of Laotian culture.
The next day, Saturday, I got up early, threw on my shorts and a t-shirt, grabbed a towel and set off for my kayaking trip. After some confused wandering around what I had thought was the meeting place, I found another young American, a California girl named Melinda, who had signed up for the same trip. Melinda had just finished a three year stint >teaching English in China and Korea, and was now on a tour of the Pacific Rim before heading home to "plot her next move". Together, we found our tour booker chatting away with the third member of our party, Peter, a Swiss doctor who had been practicing medicine in Laos for the last three years. He had lived in a large estate with his wife and two young daughters, who had recently departed for Switzerland. Peter was due to follow them shortly. Like Melinda and me, Peter had stumbled upon this trip, and figured it was a worthwhile way to spend a day.
The landscape surrounding the river was magnificent, with thick teakwood forests interspersed with some interesting and abstract rock formations. We ventured through a few mid-class rapids, nothing too exciting, but enough to ensure that everyone got properly splashed. This soaking was enhanced by our tour guide Hoi, who seemed to take delight in provoking water fights, not dissuaded in the least by our attempts to retaliate. After the rapids, ours was an easy drift along the river, with only the occasional fisherman and kingfisher bird as traveling companions.
We stopped at one spot for a nice barbecue lunch, preceded by Hoi and I jumping off of some decently high cliffs into the river - great fun, and pretty safe, although the kind of thing that you like to see your guide survive first. After slowly drifting the rest of the way down the river, paddling only when in danger of actually coming to a complete stop, we lugged our kayaks up a steep embankment, bounced our way back to Vietiane, and had a last meal together before going our separate ways.
For me, that way led to the Laos National Stadium, where I managed to get a seat at the Southeast Asia championship soccer match between Laos and Cambodia. It turned out that a seat, was unnecessary - for everyone was standing for the duration of the game. Laos prevailed, 1-0. After a beer or two with some exuberant Laotians, I hit the hay.
On Sunday, I got up late, went straight to the Danish bakery for fresh-brewed coffee and croissants, and then lounged by the river for the day, having extremely disjointed conversations with just about everyone who passed by. And on Monday, I made it to the Thai embassy, grabbed my passport and headed back into Thailand, to make my way back home towards Rayong - albeit a bit more slowly this time!